Sole Criterion: Beastie Boys Video Anthology
By Brett Ballard-Beach
August 2, 2012
Out of their eight studio albums proper, four went to number one on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart, and the other four placed in the top 15 (and one of those was an album of instrumentals). Six of the eight went platinum or better. Before deciding on the subject of this column, I had owned Licensed to Ill. Paul’s Boutique, Ill Communication, and Hello Nasty once upon a time but could only vouch that I had listened to the first two all the way through, more than once.
I would be lying if I didn’t cop to the fact that the too soon passing of Yauch earlier this year didn’t instigate in me a desire to play catch up, and form a more accurate opinion and assessment, for my own benefit. Before these past few weeks, I could not have accurately identified which Beastie was which, the fact that Yauch was Hornblower, or that his distribution company Oscilloscope Pictures was responsible for getting some fine films into theaters, including Kelly Reichardt’s deeply humanistic Wendy and Lucy (2008) and revisionist western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). This fact alone, which I gleaned from Manohla Dargis’ heartfelt tribute in The New York Times, indicated to me that there was something deeper going on here than just the passing of a hip-hop icon.
This is perhaps best represented visually by the use of an oscilloscope wave as the menu animation for both discs and in the opening and closing shot of the Beastie Boys trinity featured in the video for “3MCs and 1 DJ” which is now my favorite video by them. I can’t claim that they have become more beloved by me, or that (Paul’s Boutique aside) I can sustain an entire album by them in sequence, but I have a deeper appreciation for them as musicians in general and artists more specifically, and it goes a little something like this.
A common motif/style in the Beastie Boys videos is of a distorted camera lens (usually fish eye) capturing all three band members as they perform and/or lip-sync on a rooftop, in the woods, on stage, or through the boroughs of NYC, usually goofing around in ridiculous getups. I am well aware that individual members of a band can demand a certain percentage amount of face time in a video (as an example, I recall one of Matt Sharp’s grievances with Rivers Cuomo back in the Pinkerton days was Cuomo’s demand that he be featured on a 3 to 1 basis to any of the other band members). Having all three featured in the same shot at the same time is certainly one way to get around any fragile or easily bruised egos. But in the case of Yauch, Adam Horovitz, and Mike Diamond, it honestly wasn’t the first thing that occurred to me.
There was an inherent egalitarianism apparent even to a layman to the band like myself, suggesting a love for performing and a mutual faith in and respect for each other. (“Pass the Mic” verbalizes and musicalizes this quite vividly.) They had been together as a three-piece for three decades, with, to my knowledge, no fallings out or extended hiatuses brought on by anything other than a desire to pursue other individual creative avenues. Devotion to the art of collaboration among themselves and with others reaches its apex in the “3 MCs” clip where the band remains frozen in a triangular pose until their DJ - Mixmaster Mike - arrives to man the turntable and provide some scratchin’. They then revert back to a similar pose at the song’s end, as he packs up his gear and leaves.
Metaphorically, it’s hilariously and bluntly obvious, but the band’s good humor, rhyming skills, and level of comfort with each other stand out even more when everything is stripped down to the basic level of basement/garage performance. Footage from four cameras (one for each gentleman) is edited together from several performances. We are treated to at least a sampling of this raw footage in the “alternate angles” section. The version of the song featured in the video is the one recorded live during the performance. It doesn’t differ all that dramatically from the Hello Nasty recording, but there is an off-the-cuff roughness that belies the use of any studio polish. Perhaps what I find most appealing is that for a band who often escaped into multiple costumes, roles and performances in their videos, to appear here unfettered by any of that, as simply “themselves”, seems as eye-opening and eye-popping as any of their more renowned genre experiments.